DINER | Gastown’s Much-Loved “Boneta” To End On High Note, Close After December 23
by Andrew Morrison | Douglas Adams once wrote: “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news.” Too right. I expect that word of Boneta’s closing next month will reach far and wide and fast before you finish reading this.
It’s official: the award-winning Gastown eatery from Mark Brand and Neil Ingram will shutter for good after a final service scheduled for December 23rd. Though it’s not listed for sale yet, I’ve been told that Brand and Ingram are already in discussions with more than one interested party and that they have no plans to reopen the restaurant after the Christmas holidays.
Management were told of the decision to close before the weekend. The remainder of the staff were told late this afternoon.
Boneta, named after Brand’s mother, launched at its former location, 1 West Cordova St., in July of 2007. It moved a stone’s throw away to its current location in The Garage development four years later in September of 2011.
Its highly idiosyncratic French-West Coast food concept stayed true through four chefs. The first was Jeremie Bastien, a former sous chef from Lumiere. He was followed by Jason Leizert and Ciaran Chung, and finally the talented Jeff MacIntosh (I expect he’ll pop up elsewhere soon). The cuisine successfully hovered in that hard-to-nail nether region between casual and fine dining. So did the service. The atmosphere, however, was invariably casual. As a favourite hang-out for gourmands at rest (it was the unofficial headquarters of restaurant industry veterans on their nights off), it will be sorely missed.
Business, I’m told, has been good, and being a regular customer myself, I didn’t find that hard to believe. The bar remains a magnet for cocktail lovers, the dining room always looks busy, and it’s long been a popular venue for large parties and corporate functions. Few restaurants in the city garner greater respect than Boneta. So why close now?
“We sat down and looked at where the dining scene was going and decided to get out on top,” Brand tells me. He also sees the move as a much needed chance to concentrate on his other projects, among them Portside, Sea Monstr Sushi, The Diamond and, of course, the big renovation of Save On Meats. For Ingram, it’s a little different. “This is my mid-life crisis,” the 47 year old says with a laugh. “Some people buy a sports car. I’m selling a restaurant. I want a change.” Will we see Ingram open another restaurant somewhere down the road? I expect so. The longer he takes a holiday the worse off our restaurant scene will be.
They might be happy and excited for the change, but I don’t share their enthusiasm, at least not yet. I think this sucks, straight up. It’s as hard to imagine Gastown without a Boneta in 2014 as it was difficult to imagine Gastown with a Boneta in 2007.
To say that a lot has changed in the neighbourhood in those seven years would be a spectacular understatement. Boneta’s success and popularity showed that it was possible to do something a little (or a lot) more elevated than your basic tourist trap or pub in the neighbourhood, and I can’t help but wonder if any of the newer restaurants – L’Abattoir, Cork & Fin, Secret Location, House Guest, Pourhouse, et cetera – would have dared open in these parts if Boneta had not first blazed the trail. Perhaps the old Latin logical fallacy of Post hoc ergo propter hoc (After this, therefore, because of this) actually works in this regard.
Like so many other restaurants, Boneta was conceived over after-work drinks between the original trio of Brand, Ingram, and Andre McGillivray. Brand was working at Chambar with McGillivray at the time, and McGillivray knew Ingram when they were together at Feenie’s and Lumiere.
According to Ingram, the restaurant came about – conceptually – as the three of them kvetched about their respective places of employment. Over pints, they would pine and lament, saying things like “I wish my restaurant was a little more like yours“. The trio amounted to something of a dream team. “The only thing that could have made it better,” Ingram half jokes, “is if we’d pulled someone out of Vij’s”.
Together, they were aiming for something that was a little like Feenie’s, a little like Lumiere, and a little like Chambar, but entirely their own. Their choice of location was a risky one, as 1 West Cordova had just finished chewing up three different restaurants in as many years. What’s more, they only had a one year lease. I remember how they built the place. It was with their bare hands.
BONETA OVER THE YEARS
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The rest is history. In a story I wrote for Vancouver Magazine several years ago, I quoted a restaurant lifer who, in comparing the $8 million price tag of David Aisenstat’s Shore Club (now closed) to the less than $100,000 spent to launch Boneta, said: “For eight million, I would have preferred 80 Bonetas.” Who wouldn’t?
Boneta has won over a dozen coveted awards since opening, even landing a spot on enRoute Magazine’s 10 Best New Restaurants list in 2008. These accolades and achievements were earned and shared by a great staff. Today’s fine crew – led by Ben de Champlain (who actually got his start in the kitchen) – compliment some first tier alumni. To wit, Chad Clark, now the general manager at Hawksworth, was a member of Boneta’s opening team; Rodney Scharf managed the floor before moving on to run Cork & Fin; Simon Kaulback, now co-owner at Mamie Taylor’s in Chinatown, was a fixture for several years, moving up from barman to general manager; Justin Tisdall, now the GM at Chambar, also toiled behind the bar early on, as did Steve Da Cruz, who went on to open the Corner Suite Bistro De Luxe in 2009 (with McGillivray) before opening The Parker in 2012 with ex-Boneta chef Jason Leizert. And who can forget Charlie Ainsbury? Amazingly, between Scout and Vancouver Magazine, Boneta has counted three Bartenders of the Year behind its wood and well (Brand, Kaulback, de Champlain), while Ingram, let it not be forgotten, was once crowned Sommelier of the Year. But who’s counting?
Like I said up top, it’s hard to imagine Gastown without Boneta. I’m going to miss it terribly; the excellent art by Charles Forsberg and Johnny Taylor, the tossing of spent corks behind the bar (in the thousands), and the oddly-shaped brass pole at the end of the bar that thousands of strippers once used to help them climb up and down the stage (salvaged from The Drake). But most of all I’m going to miss the feeling upon entry that I was home. That’s a pretty rare and special feeling, and I know it was felt by many.
The restaurant’s motto - BONETA LOVES YOU – never felt the least bit false. With a few weeks remaining, there’s still time to reciprocate.
Boneta, I love you, too.